BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - In a move that has sent shockwaves through the European biotechnology industry, the European Union Environment Council gave its support on Dec. 18 to a controversial and longstanding Austrian ban on Monsanto and Aventis biotech products.

European officials had asked the EU's environment ministers to overturn the purely national ban, which is in open conflict with EU single market rules. The prohibition affects two GM maize products, Monsanto's MON 810, and T25, developed by Aventis and now owned by Bayer CropScience. They have both been authorized for marketing in Europe since 1998 and have been repeatedly cleared since then by the European Union's top scientific bodies. But Austria has refused to allow the use or sale of either product on its territory.

After a stormy debate among ministers, only four of the EU's 25 member states were prepared to confront Austria and vote for the prohibition to be lifted: the Czech Republic, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden. The result is that the Austrian ban remains in force and unchallenged.

The decision "goes against science," said Johann Vanhemelryck, secretary general of the industry's EuropaBio association. "The best scientific brains in Europe, at the European Food Safety Authority, have cleared the products. So, too, have major countries including Australia, Canada and the U.S. But this is apparently not good enough for Austria. What sort of message does this send to investors? The EU talks all the time about promoting innovation, and then it decides scientific matters with a vote among ministers. This is the only region in the world to make scientific decisions this way."

"Today's decision by the council displays an alarming indifference to the EU's own rules, and to common sense," said Simon Barber, director of EuropaBio. "It will be no surprise if this continued disarray in the EU induces more companies to move their research and investment abroad to regions with more predictable and consistent regulatory regimes."

Aventis' European spokesperson Véronique Masi told BioWorld International that although it no longer owns T25, the decision was "one more negative signal from the EU to innovative companies," and "a further discouragement to conducting research in Europe." Pharmaceutical firms in Europe are using GM maize in research against cystic fibrosis, she said, adding that it "makes nonsense of the EU's strategy to boost innovation if policy is to be made on the basis of unreasonable doubts and unjustified fears."

European officials also were disappointed by the vote. They pointed out that the justifications that Austria has offered for its prohibitions - based on its concerns over potential health and environmental risks - were rejected by the EU's Scientific Committee on Plants in 1999 and 2001, and in 2004 and again in 2006 by the European Food Safety Authority.

Now officials said they will have to weigh their options after the vote, and "carefully consider the legal and scientific bases that would underpin any further proposals." That could take "a couple of months," Barbara Helferich, spokeswoman for the EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told BioWorld International. "We are in uncharted waters."

European Push For Industrial Biotechnology

The European biotech industry launched Dec. 14 a new industrial biotechnology policy agenda for Europe aimed at boosting European Union recognition for the potential of bio-based products.

EuropaBio, the EU association for bioindustries, which has spearheaded the initiative, is asking for a coherent European policy agenda that will stimulate and support innovation in sustainable processing and production of chemicals, materials and fuels using enzymes, microorganisms and plants.

Dirk Carrez, manager of EuropaBio's industrial biotechnology council, said "Europe has an excellent academic base in the biological sciences, some of the world's leading enzyme companies, the world's largest chemical industry, and a solid development and production of bio-specialities." Without active political encouragement and incentives, the full benefits will not be achieved, and other trading partners will reap the rewards, warned the industry association.

The concept also has been backed by Mauri Pekkarinen, minister of trade and industry of Finland and current president of the EU competitiveness council: "We need next generation biotechnologies that are based on what we understand today but go much further in efficiency," he said.

Tighten Import Controls To Protect GM Rice

Meanwhile, a prominent UK member of the European Parliament has called for even tighter European Union controls on imports of food, after the recent GM contamination found in rice from the U.S. Sarah Ludford said: "Governments must pay heed to European public opinion, which is deeply skeptical about GMOs."

After quizzing European Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou about the effectiveness of EU controls Dec. 13, Ludford insisted that "European law designed to protect consumers must be respected by member states."

The EU acted in October to prevent unauthorized GM rice from entering the market through certification of consignments and strict counter-testing. But Commissioner Kyprianou said it is member states' responsibility to ensure that products on the shelf are tested.